In conversation with Tim Roter of M.C. Overalls
On how the century-old London brand is faring right now
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It all started with a parachute – one that had already served its time catapulting out of planes. Sourced, sewed, and reimagined by Christopher Raeburn, it was reincarnated from a discarded material into a garment of clothing, and Christopher’s namesake brand was born.
Fast forward 12 years, and Christopher and his production team are still identifying unique surplus, often discarded military, materials to transform into coats, dresses, t-shirts, and even the occasional bag shaped like a shark. And all of it is done in as transparent a way as possible – their retail store doubles as a lab where you can see everything being produced in front of you. We stopped by the East London-based space to speak with the man who turns parachutes into cocktail dresses about the origins of his brand, why transparency is core to everything they do, and sourcing inspiration where most people aren’t looking.
Taking a step back to being a teenager here in the UK, I did a really geeky thing called the AirCadets between the ages of 13 and 17; I was doing everything from learning how to fly planes to doing amazing hikes. It was a really interesting time in the ‘90s where the kits you were wearing all of a sudden became quite innovative. So the little geek kid at that time with all these amazing materials. And then when I started studying design, I continued to be interested in materials first. What really fascinated me is if you want to buy the original materials, either it was really expensive or really difficult to get a hold of and yet there were all of these original materials already out there. So for me it was kind of like archaeology going out there and trying to find this stuff and giving it a completely new life.
I’ve been really open: I started a responsible company sort of by mistake. In the beginning, we were making beautiful parachute jackets together, and all of a sudden if you’re reusing an existing material, you’re working with local people, you’re manufacturing something that’s really high quality and is going to last for a long time, you kind of have an inherently responsible company. And I’ve been really open that it was the material that drove me and everything else has really made good sense from there.
RÆBURN has always been about being design-led. We make really cool products, and we’re really proud of the way we make them, but what’s been really interesting in the whole conversation about sustainability – the narrative has changed incredibly in the last 12 years. In the beginning, we were attracting a lot of attention for making things out of unexpected materials, but it was still design-led. Now what’s really cool in the last five, six years, you’ve seen this massive acceleration of people being aware of their impact on the environment and wanting to do something about it. And it’s happened in tandem with a lot of innovation around materials and access to materials – particularly recycled and organic materials. Now there are more affordable and better ways to be affordable.
It’s been about looking and sourcing whenever I’ve been travelling – you find these curiosities in so many places: it might be an obvious place like a giant military surplus warehouse or it might be a charity shop in the back-end of nowhere that has this beautiful item. It’s always been something that I’ve been curious and fascinated with personally. The adage that one man’s rubbish is another man’s gold is so true. We might look at something that someone else has no clue what to do with and for us, it’s such a beautiful item – it might be an original life raft that’s turned into a parka or it might be something even from the housing industry. I love the way that if you think a little bit differently, there’s so much opportunity.
This is my fifth studio. I’ve done everything from living in tree houses to sleeping on factory floors. And the last studio that we had before this was great, but it was tucked away behind razor wire and we didn’t ever see anyone. And the one thing I knew when we moved here is that I wanted this space to be really a metaphor for what the company is all about: complete transparency. Being able to see all the way in and be completely open to the public, so we can do workshops, so we can teach crafts, we can bring skills back. It’s really a great opportunity to bring back craft, creativity, and community in one place.
I think we’ve all really woken up to the reality of the world that we’re in. We were locked in time for a longtime this year, and all of a sudden you realise that you’re surrounded by all of this stuff. I think that’s been true of a lot of people, and we’ve all done a big spring clean – or certainly I know that I have. The feedback that we’ve had from amazing customers here is that they’re definitely looking for special pieces – pieces with a history, and at RÆBURN, we see that as the beginning of a relationship: if someone buys a product from RÆBURN, actually that’s where the journey begins. We offer free repairs on our garments for life. Things like that really help provoke a conversation and build a relationship with our customers.
We have a really comprehensive range of jersey products in particular – all really high quality. We’re really proud that if you touch and feel a RÆBURN jersey t-shirt, joggers, or hoodie, the quality is incredible. And it's made with fully organic cotton. It’s been certified, so the way that it's been dyed has all been done in the right way. It’s all about quality, progressive design, and creating something that’s really going to last as well.
The parasuit is something we’ve been honing for 10 years. And one of the things that we do at RÆBURN in general is focus on how we can evolve and improve the product and make those incremental changes. A big part of the way that we look at responsible design is not always coming up with something completely new every season – it’s about improving the product and ensuring it will last a longtime.
Changing this giant juggernaut of an industry that we’ve all built together as an industry isn’t easy. But I firmly believe that we all have to work together. There’s been so much innovation that’s happened with recycled materials and access to really good natural materials in the last decade. So when I look at this next decade, I think about how we really have this opportunity to change things and have a better impact on the planet. I really look at it as being a problem that can be solved through design, co-creation, and collaboration.
I’m most excited about simplifying things. Because what we have to do as an industry is one of three things: we need to make things that are really hard-wearing and easily repairable and we do that within the RÆMADE aspect of our brand. We need to make things that are recycled and recyclable. Or we need to make things that are natural and that go back to the earth. If we just did those three things, we’d be in a much better position than we are now. So I’m most excited about going back to common sense ways of doing things.
I’m so proud that over the last 12 years, we’ve attracted such incredible talent that are prepared to work in a really challenging way. What we do every day is not normal and not easy. I’m really excited about what the next decade looks like. It feels like this is where we really push on. I’m proud to be part of the conversation that we’re pushing things forward, that we’re being disruptive, that we’re being innovative, and that we’re doing things in a different way.
Words: Allison Pavlick & Toby Standing
Photography: Jack Batchelor
On how the century-old London brand is faring right now
We’re talking to independent brands about how they’re adapting during this time